FOXBORO, Mass. The game was coming down to a final kick, as so many of the New England Patriots' games do.
Coach Bill Belichick didn't fret: He had Adam Vinatieri.
''We put one of our best players out there,'' Belichick said, ''and let him kick it.''
Some coaches might feel squeamish about letting the season ride on the foot of one of the smallest players on the field, but no one on the Patriots feels that way about Vinatieri.
With 15 game-winning field goals in his career, including the one to win the Super Bowl two years ago, he has shown he can handle the pressure and just about anything the New England weather can throw at him.
''He's Mr. Clutch,'' backup quarterback Damon Huard said. ''The Snow Bowl and the Super Bowl kicks have defined his legacy here. But we see him do it every day in practice. He's first class. I'm glad he's on my team.''
Vinatieri was always a solid kicker, ranking in the top 10 of the league's all-time list for accuracy. But his legend grew in the 2002 playoffs, when he helped the Patriots squeak out a victory over Oakland in the playoff game known around here as the ''Snow Bowl.''
Vinatieri made a 45-yard field goal off the sloppy and frozen turf with 32 seconds left to send the game into overtime (thanks in part to Tom Brady and the NFL's ''Tuck Rule''). Then, Vinatieri won it with a 23-yarder give New England a chance to play for the AFC title.
In the Super Bowl, it all came down to Vinatieri again. And when he kicked a 48-yarder as time expired, the Patriots had a 20-17 victory over the St. Louis Rams and their only NFL title.
''He has the respect from us that when the game's on the line, we know he'll come through,'' linebacker Roman Phifer said.
Vinatieri hit 90 percent of his field goal attempts last year and hit 33 in a row from 40 yards or less before a three-week span in which he went 3-for-7. He finished the regular season by making 18 of his last 23 attempts and then connected on 6-of-7 in the playoffs, including the game-winner against Tennessee and all five he tried in the AFC title game against the Colts.
Phifer jokes with Vinatieri about the kicker's life, but he knows it's not an easy one.
''I always tell Adam he's got the best job in football. When we're still in meetings, he's hanging out in the hot tub, or having lunch.'' Phifer said.
''But Adam's stepped up big for us. He's the one with the pressure job. His job is to score points, and points are important in football.''
Phifer concedes there's something a little silly about a struggle between 300-pounders being decided by a guy who trots in from the sideline in a clean uniform for a handful of plays a game. For many, the signature moment for place-kickers was when Miami's Garo Yepremian tried to recover after a botched snap by throwing the ball in the 1973 Super Bowl.
The ball slipped out of his hands, and the Redskins scored.
The Dolphins won anyway to finish the season a perfect 17-0, so they were able to laugh when Yepremian, a native of Cyprus, explained: ''Many big people were chasing me. I didn't know what to do. So I thought I would surprise them and throw it.''
Larry Izzo, a special teams specialist for the Patriots, said few of the league's kickers fit that stereotype any more. And Vinatieri is one who fits in well with the more physical players on the team.
''He's a great athlete, a tremendous competitor. He's able to, if needed, to make a good open field tackle on a great athlete who would be a returner,'' Izzo said. ''So he's a guy that's obviously got some athletic ability and he's shown that at times.''
That's what Belichick means when he pays Vinatieri the highest compliment he can muster.
''He's more of a football player than he is a kicker,'' the coach said. ''He really is.''
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